THE Near Neighbours scheme — a partnership between the Church Urban Fund, and the Archbishops’ Council — has opened its 250th “Place of Welcome” in a church in Staffordshire.
Since its foundation in 2011, Near Neighbours has awarded millions of pounds in smalls grants to thousands of community projects that seek to build trust between people across religious divides. Its Place of Welcome programme, started in 2014, encourages community groups to offer a safe space in which faith and ethnic communities across the UK can gather, talk, and eat together.
St John’s, Chase Terrace, in the diocese of Lichfield, became the 250th Place of Welcome, last Friday. The church community has been running a drop-in group on Mondays for seven years, but decided to join the scheme to be part of its network of support and venues.
The Team Vicar at St John’s, the Revd Matt Wallace, explained on Tuesday: “Joining the Places of Welcome initiative seemed a natural next step, both in terms of the support and advice we had already received, but also the network of other similar groups from which we could learn and be inspired by.
“There seems to be real momentum with the programme, and it’s exciting to see the way in which it’s catching on across the country.”
The network was created in Birmingham to help individuals in the community to make friends, “break the silence” among neighbours, and create a “sense of belonging” through conversation and experience. While the most common venues are church buildings, others include libraries, community centres, mosques, and a Buddhist temple, from Durham to Dorset.
To establish a venue, a group must adhere to five values: place, presence, people, provision, and participation. The development worker for the Place of Welcome in Wolverhampton, James Henderson, said on Tuesday: “Those values hold the whole movement together: it is about providing safe spaces, welcome, and hospitality in each community. We try and make it as self-sustaining as possible.”
The group must, therefore, have an accessible building that opens at the same time every week, that is available to everyone regardless of circumstance, and is staffed by volunteers. It must be a place of listening, should offer free refreshments, and encourage people to bring their talents, skills, and experiences.
The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, said: “It is fantastic that so many churches in Lichfield diocese and across the Midlands region are involved in this wonderful initiative, and that it is growing nationally.
”I always enjoy visiting Places of Welcome. In a world where isolation can become the norm, they are a simple and practical way to offer a familiar place of connection and companionship.”
If you would like to start or help to run a Place of Welcome, visit: www.placesofwelcome.org.uk.